Washington head coach Lindsay Meggs isn't a staunch believer in teams of destiny, but he's getting close to becoming one as his Huskies continue to shock the college baseball world by finding ways to win games, especially late.
This Washington program is like a tale of two teams over the past year. The Huskies compiled a 24-32 overall record and finished seventh in the Pac-12 Conference in 2013. Then, even with several experienced players back from last year's club, UW was unanimously picked to finish near the bottom of the conference standings this season.
The Huskies, now 37-11 overall, 19-5 in the Pac-12, are sure proof that what's expected isn't always what transpires.
Though the Huskies still have two weeks left to the regular season, they're in excellent shape to make the NCAA postseason, host an NCAA Regional, and crazy of all, they're within striking distance of getting back into the mix as a protected top eight national seed. But first things first for these Huskies, they're also gunning for the Pac-12 title with a series against Oregon State -- a team they remain one game back of in the standings -- this weekend.
Jeff Brigham and Washington have taken the nation by surprise. (UW photo)
"There's been some talk about destiny, the timing of our ballpark, things like that. But it really just boils down to our older guys rising to the challenge this season," Meggs said. "After dealing with some injuries and some other things last season, I felt like this team had a chance to take a step forward this year. It's all coming together for us and with this group we never really feel out of a game.
"Who knows, maybe it's our turn for once?"
The Huskies, who haven't reached the NCAA postseason since 2004, have made some significant improvements across the board this spring. For instance, the Huskies finished last season with a .275 batting average. This year? .291. The Huskies finished the '13 campaign with a 3.88 earned-run average. This year? 3.31. The Huskies hit just 10 homers last year, and have 24 so far this season, while finally, the offensive unit had a .345 OBP last year. This year? .376.
"The fact that we've been able to stay healthy and our guys have been in there in the lineup the entire season has been big for us," Meggs said. "This is, without a doubt, the most consistent lineup I've had in my five seasons here. All of these guys have gone through some real battles in this league, and have seen pretty much everything. This is just a unit that's talent and has been through the trenches in this league."
From an offensive perspective, the list of players who have made notable improvements this spring is impressive. Brian Wolfe is the most improved hitter on this team, raising his batting average from .233 last season to the outstanding .382 it is now, along with four homers and 32 RBIs. Meanwhile, imposing Trevor Mitsui has increased his power production and is hitting .354 as opposed to the .262 average he compiled last season, and catcher Austin Rei, who's a very steady defender, has increased his batting average from .220 to .322.
"I've always thought pretty highly of Austin [Rei] as a defensive catcher. I think he's one of the best in the league, if not the best, but he's really hitting the ball well right now," Meggs said. "Wolfe has been a real presence for us, while Andrew Ely, like last season, continues to produce well for us."
The balance with this club comes way of the pitching staff. Jeff Brigham, who has a fastball up to 96-98, is arguably one of the nation's elite Sunday starting pitchers, while Tyler Davis is a consistent, quality, Saturday starter, and Jared Fisher is a big arm righty who can either be very good, or can struggle. The Huskies also are benefitting from a surprisingly stout bullpen that includes righthander Troy Rallings and lefthander Will Ballowe, among others.
Rallings is a particularly interesting arm for the Huskies. The 6-foot-2, 215-pounder, has recorded eight saves and tallied a 1.79 ERA in 27 innings of work. He doesn't possess an overpowering fastball, but does have a wipeout slider that has continued to develop this spring.
"The bullpen has absolutely been huge for us this year. Our starting pitchers really haven't had to go into the 8th inning much this season, and that's big," Meggs said. "Rallings is really tough on righthanded hitters with his good sink and slider, while the rest of the bullpen has answered the call when we've needed them as well."
Healthy and ready to go against the Beavers this weekend, the Huskies potentially could control their own destiny for a national seed. Take care of business against Oregon State this weekend, and finish the regular season with a series win, and chances are good the Huskies have a strong case for a national seed.
It only was a few months ago out in Arizona I saw a broken, unraveled, Washington team. Now, everything seems to be clicking.
Perhaps it's destiny after all.
Oregon State doing what's expected
The beauty of college baseball is that you can have teams such as Washington and Oregon State meeting near the end of the regular season to decide the Pac-12 regular season crown. While the Huskies being in this position is a shock to most, the Beavers represent everything the Huskies have hoped to be -- a Pacific Northwest program with a significant national imprint.
Oregon State entered the 2014 season with high expectations and a lofty ranking, and haven't disappointed despite getting off to a slow start the first couple of weeks of the regular season. Head coach Pat Casey's club has a fantastic 39-8 overall record, an RPI that very much warrants a top eight national seed, and of course, a 20-4 Pac-12 record.
"We're playing pretty well as a whole right now," Casey said. "If there was something I feel like we need to improve on the rest of the way, it's just having better focus 1-9 in the lineup. I think we let some innings get away from us, and there's a little lapse in the dugout. We just need to continue getting better at execution and the little things."
To no surprise, the Beavers continue to be led offensively by junior outfielder Michael Conforto, who's destined to be a high first-round pick in the upcoming Major League Baseball draft. Conforto is hitting .393 with 14 doubles, seven homers and 55 RBIs, while the most impressive aspect of his game this season is his on-base percentage, sitting at a national-leading .545.
The Beavers hope to get Kavin Keyes, who's hitting .325, cleared from an injury and back for this weekend's series against the Huskies, while outfielder Jeff Hendrix has taken a noticeable step forward, hitting .391 with seven doubles, four triples, two homers and 27 RBIs.
"The big reason for Jeff's rise is just getting more playing time and getting more acclimated to the game, as he came to us from a pretty small school," Casey said. "We've kind of let the game be a teacher for him. Being in a lineup with guys like Michael, Kavin and Dylan [Davis], it's really allowed him to really grow up and be more productive."
Pitching-wise, senior lefthanded pitcher Ben Wetzler is cementing himself as an All-American again this spring with an 0.94 ERA in 77 innings, while fellow veteran lefty Jace Fry is the one creating the most buzz in Corvallis, Ore. Fry, a 6-foot, 192-pounder, returned late last season from an injury, and has taken the nation by storm this spring with a 1.64 ERA in 98 2/3 innings, along with 78 strikeouts and 28 walks. Fry typically sits 89-91 with his fastball and can touch a 92-93 mph on the radar gun on a great day, but what makes him so tough to hit is a curveball, that when commanded, can almost be an unhittable pitch unless timed just right.
"Fry is just getting better and better. His stuff is just really good right now," Casey said. "He's got movement, he really competes, and just gets stronger as games progress."
Oregon State, along with Virginia, are favorites to win the national title. Washington, though, provides a very stiff test for Casey's club this weekend.